A family's struggle to care for a young adult paralyzed by a stray bullet ended last week when Brandyn Preston died in his sleep.
While his family mourned, Preston's death prompted investigators to upgrade his case to a homicide.
Preston had been paralyzed since May. He was visiting relatives in Iowa when a bullet fired into the crowd at a high school graduation party struck the back of his neck. An autopsy may give Iowa investigators more clues since the bullet, which had been left in Preston's spine, can now be retrieved for testing.
"We're always going to try and collect the evidence that's available and use it to further the investigation," Fort Dodge Police chief Tim Carmody said.
Preston had hung on with the help of a ventilator for the past eight months and had been eating and sleeping normally, making his passing unexpected.
"Everybody's surprised but we're thankful he's not suffering anymore," his mother and full-time caretaker Kim Wood said.
Preston grew up with his mother and stepfather and attended East Bay and Robinson high schools, as well as Waynesville High School in Missouri where he was a basketball standout.
The Times published stories about the financial and physical difficulties his family faced caring for him after the shooting.
Early last year, he left his Port Tampa home for Iowa with the blessing of his mom and stepfather to learn more about his biological father's family. There, he connected with several family members, and he was attending a graduation party for a newfound cousin when he was shot.
After spending months in an Iowa hospital, Preston was moved to a Nebraska rehabilitation center before being flown back home in August.
His care was expensive, and a fundraising drive the family launched raised about $4,000.
But the money ran out quickly. Preston's parents had hoped military benefits for his stepfather, Donovan Wood, an Iraq War Bronze Star recipient, would pay for a home nurse. But he is retired and working in the private sector, which limits his benefits.
Kim Wood quit her job to take care of her son full time, aided in part through Medicaid. Late last year, Preston spent weeks in a South Tampa hospital for a blood clot and bed sores.
Lately, the family said Preston, who could only crane his neck, appeared to be faring better. Although he could only whisper, he was on the phone with friends until 9 p.m. He ate normally, putting down everything from Sonic and Burger King fast food to chicken wings.
"Whatever he asked for, we would give it to him," Kim Wood said.
He was frustrated about his condition, his mother said, and sometimes lashed out verbally at family members.
A day before he died, he had told his mother he wanted to apologize for how he had treated some of his siblings.
On the morning of Jan. 22, she thought he was sleeping until she felt his rigid jaw. He had died sometime during the night, she said.
"It was a privilege for me to serve my son for seven months," Kim Wood said. "I would do it again in a heartbeat."
The family now hopes for closure in Preston's case, which is being investigated by the Iowa Division of Criminal Investigation, Iowa State Patrol, the Webster County Sheriff's Office and Fort Dodge police.
The Webster County Crime Stoppers posted a $5,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the shooter. Crime Stoppers can be reached at (515) 573-1444 or wccrimestoppers.com.
Fort Dodge Detective Steve Hanson, (515) 573-1426, and state Agent Jim Thiele, (515) 972-4100, are leading the case.
Preston is survived by his mother, stepfather, biological father and more than six siblings, Kim Wood said.
A viewing will be held from 4 to 6 p.m. Friday at Brewer & Sons Funeral Homes in South Tampa, 3328 S Dale Mabry Highway. A memorial service will immediately follow. Both events are open to the public.
Justin George can be reached at (813) 226-3368 or [email protected]